We have a new climate change consensus — and it's good news everyone

Climate change is now a question of adaptation. And it's not as frightening a question as you might think

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

5 April 2014

9:00 AM

Nigel Lawson was right after all. Ever since the Centre for Policy Studies lecture in 2006 that launched the former chancellor on his late career as a critic of global warming policy, Lord Lawson has been stressing the need to adapt to climate change, rather than throw public money at futile attempts to prevent it. Until now, the official line has been largely to ignore adaptation and focus instead on ‘mitigation’ — the misleading term for preventing carbon dioxide emissions.

That has now changed. The received wisdom on global warming, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was updated this week. The newspapers were, as always, full of stories about scientists being even more certain of environmental Armageddon. But the document itself revealed a far more striking story: it emphasised, again and again, the need to adapt to climate change. Even in the main text of the press release that accompanied the report, the word ‘adaptation’ occurred ten times, the word ‘mitigation’ not at all.

The distinction is crucial. So far, the debate has followed a certain bovine logic: that global warming is happening, so we need to slow it down by hugely expensive decarbonisation strategies — green taxes, wind farms. And what good will this do? Is it possible to stop global warming in its tracks? Or would all these green policies be the equivalent of trying to blow away a hurricane? This question — just how much can be achieved by mitigation — is one not often addressed.

There is an alternative: accepting that the planet is warming, and seeing if we can adjust accordingly. Adaptation means investing in flood defences, so that airports such as Schiphol can continue to operate below existing (and future) sea level, and air conditioning, so that cities such as Houston and Singapore can continue to grow despite existing (and future) high temperatures. It means plant breeding, so that maize can be grown in a greater range of existing (and future) climates, better infrastructure, so that Mexico or India can survive existing (and future) cyclones, more world trade, so that Ethiopia can get grain from Australia during existing (and future) droughts.

Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for the Environment, in repeatedly emphasising the need to adapt to climate change in this way, has been something of a lone voice in the government. But he can now count on the support of the mighty IPCC, a United Nations body that employs hundreds of scientists to put together the scientific equivalent of a bible on the topic every six years or so. Whereas the last report had two pages on adaptation, this one has four chapters.

Professor Chris Field is the chairman of Working Group 2 of the IPCC, the part devoted to the effects of climate change rather than the cause. ‘The really big breakthrough in this report,’ he says, ‘is the new idea of thinking about managing climate change.’ His co-chair Vicente Barros adds: ‘Investments in better preparation can pay dividends both for the present and for the future … adaptation can play a key role in decreasing these risks’. After so many years, the penny is beginning to drop.

In his book An Appeal to Reason, Lawson devoted a chapter to the importance of adaptation, in which he pointed out that the last IPCC report in 2007 specifically assumed that humans would not adapt. ‘Possible impacts,’ the report said, ‘do not take into account any changes or developments in adaptive capacity.’ That is to say, if the world gets warmer, sea levels rise and rainfall patterns change, farmers, developers and consumers will do absolutely nothing to change their habits over the course of an entire century. It is a ludicrous assumption.

But this assumption was central, Lawson pointed out, to the estimated future cost of climate change the IPCC reported. A notorious example was the report’s conclusion that, ‘assuming no adaptation’, crop yields might fall by 70 per cent by the end of the century — a conclusion based, a footnote revealed, on a single study of peanut farming in one part of India.

Lawson pointed out that adaptation had six obvious benefits as a strategy, which mitigation did not share. It required no international treaty, but would work if adopted unilaterally; it could be applied locally; it would produce results quickly; it could capture any benefits of warming while avoiding risks; it addressed existing problems that were merely exacerbated by warming; and it would bring benefits even if global warming proves to have been exaggerated.

Ask yourself, if you were a resident of the Somerset Levels, whether you would prefer a government policy of adapting to anything the weather might throw at you, whether it was exacerbated by climate change or not, or spending nearly £50 billion (by 2020) on low-carbon technologies that might in a few decades’ time, if adopted by the whole world, reduce the exacerbation of floods, but not the floods themselves.

It is remarkable how far this latest report moves towards Lawson’s position. Professor Field, who seems to be an eminently sensible chap, clearly strove to emphasise adaptation, if only because the chance of an international agreement on emissions looks ever less likely. If you go through the report chapter by chapter (not that many people seem to have bothered), amid the usual warnings of potential danger, there are many sensible, if jargon-filled, discussions of exactly the points Lawson made.

Chapter 17 concedes that ‘adaptation strategies … can yield welfare benefits even in the event of a constant climate, such as more efficient use of water and more robust crop varieties’. Chapter 20 even acknowledges that ‘in some cases mitigation may impede adaptation (e.g., reduced energy availability in countries with growing populations)’. A crucial point, this: that preventing the poor from getting access to cheap electricity from coal might make them more vulnerable to climate change. So green policies may compound the problem they seek to solve.

In short, there is a great deal in this report to like. It has, moreover, toned down the alarm considerably. Even the New Scientist magazine has noticed that the report ‘backs off from some of the predictions made in the previous report’ and despite the urgings of Ed Davey to sex up the summary during last week’s meeting in Yokohama, New Scientist noticed that ‘the report has even watered down many of the more confident predictions that appeared in the leaked drafts’.

For instance, references to ‘hundreds of millions’ of people being affected by rising sea levels were removed from the summary, as were statements about the impact of warmer temperatures on crops. The report bravely admits that invasive alien species are a far greater threat to species extinction than climate change itself. Even coral reefs, the report admits, are threatened mostly by pollution and overfishing, which might be exacerbated at the margin by climate change. So why don’t we have intergovernmental panels on invasive species and overfishing?

As these examples illustrate, perhaps most encouraging of all, the report firmly states that the impact of climate change will be small relative to other things that happen during this century: ‘For most economic sectors … changes in population, age structure, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation and governance will be large relative to the impacts of climate change.’ So yes, the world is heating up. But in many ways, it will be a better world.

The report puts the global aggregate economic damage from climate change at less than 2.5 per cent of income by the latter years of the century. This is a far lower number than Lord Stern arrived at in his notorious report of 2006, and this is taking the bleak view that there will be a further 2.5˚C rise from recent levels. This is the highest of nine loss estimates; the average is only 1.1 per cent.

And the IPCC is projecting two thirds more warming per increment of carbon dioxide than the best observationally based studies now suggest, so the warming the IPCC outlines is not even likely with the highest emissions assumption.

In other words, even if you pile pessimism upon pessimism, assuming relatively little decarbonisation, much global enrichment and higher climate ‘sensitivity’ than now looks plausible — leading to more rapid climate change — you still, on the worst estimate, hurt the world economy in a century by only about as much as it grows every year or two. Rather than inflict an awful economic toll, global warming would make our very rich descendants — who are likely to be maybe eight or nine times as rich as we are today, on global average — a bit less rich.

To avoid this little harm, we could go for adaptation — let poor people get as rich as possible and use their income to protect themselves and their natural surroundings against floods, storms, potential food shortages and loss of habitat. Or we could go for mitigation, getting the entire world to agree to give up the fossil fuels that provide us with 85 per cent of our energy. Or we could try both, which is what the IPCC now recommends.

But the one truly bonkers thing to do would be to go unilaterally into a policy of subsidising the rich to install technologies that drive up the cost of energy, desecrate the countryside, kill golden eagles, clear-cut swamp forests in North Carolina, turn grain into motor fuel, so driving up the price of food and killing people, and prevent poor people in Africa getting loans to build coal-fired, cheap power stations instead of inhaling smoke from wood fires cut from virgin forests.

All this we are doing in this country, with almost no prospect of cutting carbon emissions enough to affect the climate. That’s the very opposite of adaptation — preventing the economic growth that would enable us to adapt while failing to prevent any climate change.

The report is far from ideal (don’t worry, Professor Field, I know that endorsement from the likes of me would kill your career). As Rupert Darwall, author of The Age of Global Warming, has pointed out, it systematically ignores the benefits of climate change and makes the unsupported claim that crop yields have been negatively affected by climate change, its only evidence being recent spikes in crop prices — a big cause of which was climate policy, not climate change, in the shape of biofuels programmes that diverted 5 per cent of the world’s grain crop into fuel.

Did you gather from the press that the report warns of rising deaths from storms and droughts, falling crop yields, spreading diseases, and all the usual litany? Did you conclude from this that deaths from storms will increase, crop yields will fall, and diseases will kill more people? Oh, how naive can you get!

No, no, no — what they mean is that the continuing fall in deaths from storms, floods and disease may not be as steep as it would be without climate change, that the continuing rise in crop yields may not be as fast as it would be without climate change, and that the continuing retreat of malaria might not be as rapid as it would be without climate change. In other words, the world will probably heat up — but it’s not going to end. It’s going to be healthier and wealthier than ever before, just a tad less wealthy than it might otherwise have been. Assuming we do not adapt, that is.

Matt Ridley’s books include The Red Queen, The Origins of Virtue and The Rational Optimist.

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